– Nonfiction by Anna Shannon –
“Hey sack of flesh.”
I text this to my friend. She had cancer excised from her body last week.
“Hey yourself, sack of flesh.” I know she’s not offended. She shares my dark disdain for the body. “We need that on a T shirt.”
I ‘like’ her blue text bubble. I know how to order a custom T shirt. We could do that. She’s an artist. She could design the T shirt. Then I think, what would it say, just ‘sack of flesh?’ Should we have a website? Instagram account? Brand identity? The T shirt’s too much now. Besides, I’m not sure I feel like defending myself to the ‘goopy,’ microbiome-obsessed world.
It’s enough to know that my fellow sack of flesh (SOF) and I understand each other. We’ve had unpleasant body experiences like illness and disease. It’s freeing to equate the body to a slab of beef. We humans attach so much importance to the body and its health. Remember the slogan from the 80’s, enshrined in the movie The Princess Bride?
If you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything.
On the face of it, this trope sounds logical, but is it? It seems too simple, too dichotomous. If I don’t ‘have’ my health, then what am I? Chopped liver?
As I type this, I don’t ‘got it.’ What I ‘got’ are mysterious, enflamed blisters under my clothes spreading from neck to knee. I live in loose-fitting pyjamas. I can’t stand anything touching me. I’m not ‘healthy’ at the moment, but I’m not dead either. I’m still doing the dishes. I’m still breathing, waiting to see a doctor and wracking my brains to figure out what caused this.
What I know for sure is that I, a female human of likely mid-mortality lifespan, am not in control of the rash on my SOF. Will I be in control if I know what caused it? I may never know. I wonder, as I resist the urge to scratch, if we can really know what causes illness. When my SOF dies, will it be from the chemicals in my morning coffee not agreeing with my probiotic supplements?
Control is an illusion. It doesn’t factor in freak accidents. I might spend my life diligently taking calcium to prevent osteoporosis only to slip on ice and never wake up from the blow to my head. I might catch this miasma of COVID-19 and be one in a tally of deaths on the news. What about the genetic lottery in every cell, the ACGT combo spelling out my predisposition and possible fate with every replication? Acknowledging chance is not okay in a #wellness world. There’s no one to blame with chance, and we need someone to blame. In our body positive world, Illness-blaming is the new fat-shaming.
My friend got cancer. She’s had people tell her she should have focused more on positive thinking. She should have visualized health.
I have a mysterious rash. Perhaps I ignored a friend’s theory of a gluten allergy to my peril, and I should begin a rigorous investigative process of food eliminations.
Last summer I felt tired all the time. It lasted a few weeks. On one walk around the neighbourhood, I really had to convince myself not to curl up on someone’s lawn and go to sleep. I really thought, what are lawns for if not for naps? People go to such trouble to make their grass so cushiony soft. I didn’t. I dragged my SOF home. I slept in my bed. I didn’t mention this tiredness to other people. I didn’t need to be reminded of the practice of good sleep hygiene, of the dangers of blue light from screens in the evening. The tiredness couldn’t be as simple as feeling completely overwhelmed for some pandemic-stress-related reason, could it?
We blame each other for being ill. But how much of that blame is really ours? After all, our SOF aren’t really all ours. Easy mistake — we’re only human, or are we? At last count, the SOF we carefully coat with sunscreen is only 43% human DNA. If the other 57% isn’t ‘us,’ maybe it’s aliens. The aliens aren’t among us, they’re in us. Or are they us?
The aliens are bacteria, viruses and fungi. They like to live in the most trendy spot in the SOF right now: the bowel. Nice ladies call this the microbiome and worry about their gut health. The aliens do their most important work there, and it’s our responsibility to feed them. It’s not enough to provide organic food. The aliens like anything fermented. Think: kimchi, sauerkraut and pickles. I’m a sweet-tooth. The aliens, it appears, are sour-guts.
I dig out the pickle jar from the back of the fridge and ‘go fishing’ with a fork. Fine, I can eat pickles. But I have to wonder if trying to please our alien overlords is another illusion of control. No wonder we blame the ill for being ill. We’re terrified. I crunch my pickle and think:
We’re all going to die.
We don’t know how or when.
We can’t stop it no matter what.
It’s morbid, but I feel a bit relieved. I feel less control, but somehow ok with it. Maybe my SOF will die sooner than I expect or in a different way than I imagine. I’m almost intrigued, curious, fascinated to know how it ends. Maybe if I’m ok with this, others can leave me and my SOF alone. Me and my mysterious rash are blameless.
It’s not that simple though. I still want medical help, and in exchange, the world will continue to suggest that even I, with ice-packs stuffed down my tank top, am responsible for my situation. I must be. Wait, am I? As I hoist my left breast to apply anti-itch cream underneath, my mind runs through the last few weeks. The pain I’m feeling is begging the question: What the hell did I do?
To have illness in one’s SOF is to be an SOF open to speculation. I know better than to announce: “I have a weird rash” to most people. That’s an invitation to a free-for-all, as if my rash is a game show and only the smartest health player knows the answer. They’ve read all the blogs, heard all the podcasts. They are compelled to figure it out, mostly to avoid catching it themselves. Catching what? Shame, of course. To be ill is having others infer that this is all somehow your fault. I’ve done something wrong. I’ve sinned. Something in my lifestyle must be secretly dirty or inappropriate.
I saw a specialist about my rash. I felt comforted that she didn’t know what it was and cut out two pieces from my SOF for testing. I now have medicated ointment and pills. I have stitches — grisly proof that investigation is warranted. It’s still possible I manifested this rash. I did go for a walk on a chilly day in a city at high-altitude. It’s hard not to feel shame sitting naked under a paper sheet, having people examine the folds of your SOF and the grotesque infliction upon it. But my shame feels diminished by the Rx, like a shame-free pass on a piece of paper. Or maybe the shame is just delayed. When I go for my next appointment, I’ll be ready.
I spend the days before then imagining myself back in the patient’s chair, staring at the art on the wall. The specialist will bounce in with the biopsy report and say brightly, “Tell me about your cat,” or “How much do you drink,” or “Do you rinse your body wash off completely when you shower.” And I’ll be relieved to know the cause, so relieved I’ll accept the shame of being a person who inhaled cat fecal dust, likes too dry a martini, or doesn’t know how to wash properly.
But today, as I wave my arms around, trying to air-dry the vaseline-like ointment slathered on my naked body, I wonder if I have the courage to take on an alternative lifestyle choice. Do I have the guts to fully embrace my SOF ethos? What if I refuse to accept shame for being ill? What if I want to not spend every moment worrying if the aliens in my bowels are enjoying their kefir? Or worrying that the raisins on my oatmeal are too high glycemic? I don’t know if I want to live in that world. And wouldn’t the worry alone kill me, or make me ill?
I am going to die, all 43% of me that is my sack of flesh.
“You know what?” I text my friend back. “Let’s do the damn T shirt.”
About the Author – Anna Shannon
Anna Shannon (she/her) is a writer with publications in Book of Matches, Existere Journal of Arts & Literature, NōD, Past Ten, Regulus Press, Remington Review and The Coachella Review. In addition to short prose, she’s writing a novel about a female photographer’s adventures across post-confederation Canada. She holds credentials in psychology and professional writing from the University of Calgary and lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. To learn more, visit www.annawordsgood.com. Instagram: @annawordsgood
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